The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

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Leaves in the Wind

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A dry rustle makes Nicholson turn. Leaves, caught up in a breeze, gliding lazily across the sidewalk before settling back to the ground. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Just leaves. Relax.

He turns and continues down the street.

Not a big deal, he thinks, though he’s started to walk faster. It happens every October. The leaves fall, dry like shed snakeskins, and are blown about by the wind along the street.

Once more, he can hear them behind him, skidding across the concrete, a hollow rattling whisper.

Nicholson turns again. The wind is still gusting, and the leaves, suspended in the air, twirl and dance as if alive.

As if alive.

Nicholson bolts. This is silly, he thinks even as he picks up speed. The spirit he encountered all those years ago is long gone, a forgotten phantom that Nicholson escaped decades ago.

Only it isn’t silly. He has too much experience with his old nemesis to think it’s a coincidence.

The leaves stop and he glances back. It’s toying with him, playing on his fears. He slows, then stops, gasping as he catches his breath. Running, he decides, won’t do him any good. His only defense all these years has been to keep a low profile, and now that defense has been shot to Hell. Nothing left to do but face it head on.

“Nicholson.” The voice comes out a dry dusty whisper. “I told you you couldn’t avoid me forever.”

The wind kicks up around him, forming an invisible wall, tugging at his shirt sleeves, tousling his short sandy hair.

“How did you find me?” Nicholson asks.

Leaves dance around him in delighted autumnal laughter.

“I am the wind. I am everywhere.” The breeze grows louder, stronger. “You are free because I let you go, not because you could have escaped me on your own.”

“Then why did you let me go?” Nicholson tries to sound defiant, but can only manage a strangled croak.

The wind has become a tornado.

“Because I enjoyed watching you run, because you were always looking over your shoulder, terrified of every breeze, every rustling leaf. But I’m tired now, and hungry, and in the end, even amusing prey is just prey.”

Nicholson’s shirt brushes against that spinning wall of air and the fabric tears, yanked away to become part of the raging tempest.

Nicholson’s eyes open in wide, preternatural terror.

“Goodbye, Nicholson.”

The wall closes in.

Nicholson screams.

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The Dokash

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I am not a madman.

The doctors all say the same thing, those small minded men and women in their white lab coats and sterile, condescending smiles. They assert that I’m delusional, that I’m a danger to myself and others. Do not believe them. I’ve come not to do violence, but to warn of the violence yet to come.

I am their emissary. I herald their arrival, the rightful heirs of your world, the Great Masters who were here long before you were even a dollop of goo in the primordial soup. To you, I issue fair warning. Turn from me all you like. Your refusal to listen will not save you when they come.

You, who mill about in your suits and ties like ants before a mound of sand; you, who believe yourselves the sole sovereign masters of nature; you, who gaze up at the vastness of the universe and conclude that all of it was made for you; prepare yourselves.

They’re coming. From beyond the cosmos, from beyond space and time, they’re coming. They’ll remake the Earth in their image. Oceans will boil. Fields will blaze. Heaven and Hell will pass away. Skin will burn. Flesh will melt. And your souls, stripped of their mortal coils, will serve the Dokash.

Mind your place, do them homage and you will be rewarded. But do not obey, do not pay tribute and you’ll be punished, made to crawl on all fours like dogs, tongues lolling, while the Dokash regard you as children who delight in pouring salt on worms and snails, so that you would prefer the kind of death in which there is nothing at all.

Hear my words and prepare yourselves. The life you know is coming to an end.

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The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.

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We Are You

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The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

Rain fell, pattering the street, while above in the clouds, thunder exploded like aboriginal drums. The rain had soaked through her clothes, and a chill was settling into her chest. But she kept running, blood pounding, side aching, because something dangerous was behind her, and if she let her guard down for even a moment she was dead.

Another shriek, a war cry that drained the blood from her already pallid face.

Have to go. Have to get away.

The streets had been abandoned years ago and Diane was alone. Buildings slumped in abandoned lots, while empty cars tilted into gutters and signs hung from rusted posts like ancient monuments to forgotten gods.

No one left but Diane, which meant no one left to help.

She remembered a time before the invasion, before the world had been reduced to broken structures and shattered dreams. The image most prominent in her mind was that of her mother, cradling her in her arms when she was only three. Nobody would have believed her if she said she could remember such a young age, but Diane recalled every word that passed from her mother’s lips as she sang Diane’s favorite song, every stroke through her hair as she leaned in to whisper that she loved her, that no harm would come to her as long as she remained in her mother’s arms. The potent memory of what she’d had and what she lost made her chest ache.

I miss you, Mom.

Then pain shot through Diane’s leg, and the world rose to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs.

The gutter. She’d tripped over the gutter. Diane staggered to her feet, eyes wide.

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

But it was too late. By the time she found her balance she’d already seen its eyes, staring at her from across the street.

Diane’s eyes.

Her dark double’s thoughts immediately burst inside her mind.

We are you, now. The time for running is over.

It was the last thing Diane heard.

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Dark Calling

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Jacqueline peered inside the smooth porcelain toilet, contemplating the depth of rusted pipes that descended far underground. What lurked in those black, hidden places? What horror existed just out of sight, waiting to take her in her sleep?

It had spoken again last night. It was the reason she left the toilet lid closed, the reason why she locked her bedroom door before going to sleep. That fetid voice that sounded like the slopping of rancid meat, bubbling up from the sewers beneath what was otherwise a safe, ordinary neighborhood.

She could never remember what it said. It was like waking from a nightmare, knowing you’d been afraid but being unable to articulate why. She could only recall that rotten, murderous voice, speaking of things that made her skin break out in hives, and waking on the toilet with her pants at her ankles, staring into space, eyes vacant and dead.

Well, no more. Tonight, she would sleep on the other side of the house, as far from the bathroom as possible. She would stick a pair of earbuds in her ears and blast Metallica as loud as she could stand. It wouldn’t lull her from her slumber with its dark calling this time.

That night, she lay on the couch, music blaring in the dark. The bathroom door was closed.

Freedom.

The thought was borne across the auditory hurricane of guitars and drums before descending into the bowels of an increasingly drowsy mind. Soon she was floating, melting into the void of unconsciousness, a soul without substance.

That was when she heard its voice.

Jacqueline.

That terrible sound of slapping meat.

Come to me, Jacqueline. Let me ruin you with my dark secrets.

Like a zombie, she sleepwalked through the hallway, the half-crazed voice of James Hetfield twining through her mind like creeping vines. She stopped beside the bathroom door, dazed, hopelessly under its spell. She twisted the knob, walked inside, and was greeted by the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs.

Come closer.

It sang to her now, a jarring, unholy chorus that held her rapt, binding her to its malevolent charms.

The part of her that had worked so hard to escape its influence was now a thousand miles away. She was another Jacqueline, one that existed only at night, one who’s sole purpose was to serve an ancient, forsaken master. It needed her now, and she would keep it waiting no longer.

When Jacqueline woke the next morning, she once more found herself sitting on the toilet, staring up at the tiled wall, her pants down to her ankles. The earbuds lay at her feet.

Jacqueline opened her mouth and screamed.

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Everlasting Life

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Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.

She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.

Don’t let me die!

The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.

She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.

“Karen.”

Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.

“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.

Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.

“I’m real, Karen.”

Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.

“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”

How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.

“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”

A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.

I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.

“Granted.”

Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.

I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.

If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.

Silence.

Speak, dammit!

Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.

*         *         *

She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.

She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.

She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.

Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.

These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.

She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.

Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.

Death would have been better.

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Merchant of Desire

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He is called the Merchant of Desire.

He operates in a dingy stucco strip mall and has been in business for as long as anyone can remember. Only the foolish or the desperate seek his aid, and then only as a last resort. They’re people without ambition, people who hate their jobs, their spouses, their families, people who’ve gone mad in the wasteland of routine.

They appear in the dusty doorway without an appointment. An electronic bell chimes when they gather the courage to enter, and they blink with surprise as if the ordinary sound has no business existing in such a place.

They inch forward into the dark environment, anxiety knotting their stomachs as they pass through a mostly empty building that appears long abandoned.

The merchant waits in the back. He wants the unsettling nature of the shop to work on their minds. Only the most desperate stay, and it’s only the most desperate that interest him.

When enough time has passed, he steps out from behind a dark curtain, announcing himself in a sudden flourish that makes his patrons jump. He apologizes, offers soothing gestures and comforting words.

He is the consummate salesman.

Anxiety doesn’t escape them completely, but after a joke or two, perhaps a word about the weather, they start to relax. They allow the merchant to charm them with his hospitality, knowing full well he’s a dangerous man who can’t be trusted. He listens to all they have to say, and he regales them with tales of his own life, of his youth in rags or his youth in riches, of growing up an only child or growing up among five siblings.

As they listen they let their guard down, so that eventually they disclose something compromising. A sibling’s habit they find annoying. A regret that keeps them up at night. Unsettling dreams. Tiny cracks in the psyche reveal themselves, and the merchant prods with great care until the window dressing that covers their naked souls has come undone without their having realized it.

They open up to him then, forgetting all about his reputation. They reveal their life has been an affectation, a pretense of passion they construct daily to hide the apathy that’s consumed their hearts, reducing them to gnarled, withered stumps. They ask how such a thing could be so, if there’s something wrong with them, if something’s not right in their heads.

This is the opportunity the merchant has been waiting for.

By this time, his soon-to-be customers have made up their minds. For mere dollars, he offers them ambition, dreams, desire. He offers the opportunity to feel once more, to escape the icy prison of indifference that’s tormented their malnourished souls for so many years.

They’re skeptical, of course, at least on the surface. They invariably call him mad, absurd, even disingenuous. But in the most primal regions of their hearts, they know he can give them what they think they want.

He always has his way with them in the end.

He leads them into the back, a dark, windowless room. He sits them down in a corner on a small wooden chair. He tells them to close their eyes, then hovers over them unseen, where he reaches into their minds.

He navigates the labyrinthine corridors of their psyches with ease, wending his way through broken dreams and broken hearts. He knits and mends, constructs new dreams from the detritus of the old.

His customers wake refreshed and invigorated. They rediscover purpose. They find their mental compass has been reoriented. The Merchant bows and wishes them the best of luck.

But there’s still the matter of the price.

To start, there’s a modest financial exchange. This allows the merchant to pay his rent. But his rate is low and his customers are always surprised.

There’s also a hidden fee, one his patrons never see coming. It usually costs them their lives.

Most don’t last for more than a few years. Their ambitions outgrow their accomplishments and they find they can never be satisfied. They don’t blame the Merchant. Why would they, when the fault lies solely within themselves? They believe their goals are reasonable and they can’t understand why they’re unable to achieve them. If only they’d worked harder. If only they’d put in more hours. Saved more money.

They push themselves until they’ve depleted what little energy they have left, and the Merchant watches from a distance, feeding on their ballooning ambition like a vampire.

Some commit suicide. Others suffer heart attacks and strokes. A few survive to old age, but only as desiccated husks, devoid of anything beyond a heart beat and a pulse.

The merchant always regrets their passing. If only he could feed on them forever. But there are always others to sustain him.

It’s never a hard sell.

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Half-Life

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Fingers reaching, creeping, curling around my neck like choking vines. Draining my life. I struggle, try to pry it off my vulnerable skin. It taunts me, utters its low, susurrus laugh like dried leaves, like rattling snake’s skin, slithering across dry, desert sand.

I always manage to survive in spite of its debilitating grip, but only just. Mine is a sort of half-life, forever suspended between the dark and the light. And beneath me, the creature in the shadows, beckoning me to give up, to let go, to allow myself to fall into its insatiable jaws.

It knows I weaken, that I have not the strength to escape and fly toward the light. It does not age, but instead bides its time, for it knows I can only go on for so long before I falter.

How long can I live without rescue before my grip loosens? How long can I survive?

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Death by Ice

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If John didn’t find shelter soon, he would die.

It was his thirty-seventh birthday. He’d always wanted to see snow, so he and a group of friends had rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains to celebrate. A huge snowstorm had swept the region the night before, leaving behind humongous drifts of crystal white.

“Let’s go hiking,” Alicia had said, and everyone thought it was a great idea. They donned extra layers of clothing and snow jackets, took their phones for group selfies and resolved to be back in time for dinner. Unfortunately, John had gotten separated from the group.

“I have to go back,” he’d said after only twenty minutes of walking. “I want to change into my snow boots.”

“You know the way?” Alex asked.

“Of course. A quarter mile there.” He pointed back behind them. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d teased him for his terrible sense of direction, he would’ve asked for company.

Now, John trudged through waist-deep snow and shivered. He’d lost the path a while ago, so that all that surrounded him were large gray rocks and towering pines. The cold had leeched through his jacket and snow pants, seeping into flesh and bone, and he could no longer feel his limbs. Was this how he would die? Would he exit this world only thirty-seven years after entering it, all because of a pair of shoes and a bruised ego?

I won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

He reached out to steady himself against a nearby tree and paused. How long had he been walking? Two hours? Three? He needed to rest.

No! screamed a half mad thought that bubbled out of a partially frozen mind.

Just a couple minutes. A couple minutes to rest his aching muscles, a couple minutes to calm his nerves. Then he could press on. In the back of his head, that manic voice continued screaming for him to go on. But he was no longer listening.

He dropped to his knees, rested his head against a nearby tree trunk. He reached back with numb hands to form a crude pillow, and he wondered vaguely why he couldn’t feel the bark.

Just a couple minutes.

John closed his eyes.

*    *    *

He woke to scratching. Eyelids fluttered, and for a moment he was dazzled by the golden light that filtered through the treetops. Then he felt it again, coarse and painful. He stumbled to his feet. His heart jumped into his throat.

John was surrounded by horned creatures twice as tall as himself, balanced on horse-like haunches and blood-soaked hooves. They reached out to him, scraping with scythe-like claws. He scrambled back. Bumped into a tree. Fell into the snow.

They closed in, began to rip skin and flesh. It was like having his heart carved out of his chest with an icicle. He cried out, coughing as his lungs hitched on the frozen air. He tried to pull away, but they’d pinned him against the tree so he couldn’t move.

Each slashing claw stole more of his warmth, until his teeth chattered like machine gun fire.

“G– g– go away,” he rattled.

Slash. Cut.

He tried to fend them off with useless hands.

Slash. Cut.

Black began to creep in from the corners of his vision. His arms and legs were dead, frozen weights.

Slash. Cut.

The image before his eyes constricted to a narrow white tunnel.

Slash. Cut.

Then light. Dazzling. And warmth. Suffusing. John marveled as feeling flowed back into his limbs. It was not the painful pins-and-needles sensation he’d expected, but a near instant restoration of feeling and motor control. The black that had conquered his vision dispersed. Now, he could see not only the world around him but more, a whole other realm that waited just beyond the threshold of space and time. There was love, and a presence that wanted to protect him. John called out to it, and it answered.

The horned creatures shrieked, shielding their eyes against the sudden burst of light. Hooting and snorting, they staggered away.

The light coalesced, assumed form and substance. It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. It had come to his rescue because it loved him, and he found that he loved it in return. He was no longer afraid to die, not if the light would take him with it.

John opened himself to its embrace. He felt a tug. A pull. His body fell away, left to freeze in the snow. John gazed down with disinterest.

The light swept him up and carried him home.

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